Relentless on D
Deemed “the worst defensive player to ever put on a UConn uniform” by Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma early in her college career, Carla Berube saw the light.
At UConn from 1993 to 1997, Berube improved her defensive play so much that by her senior season, Auriemma was assigning her to guard the opponent’s best player. Dedicated to a defense-first approach to basketball, the Huskies finished 33-1 when Berube was a senior captain in 1996-97. In 1995, as a sophomore, she had been a member of the 35-0 NCAA championship squad.
“I saw first-hand how successful a team can be if they commit to the defensive side of the ball,” Berube says.
Now in her 11th season as the head coach at Tufts, Berube leads the top-ranked defensive team in the nation. Entering the NCAA sectionals this weekend at Amherst with a third-round game against the host Lord Jeffs on March 8 at 8 p.m., the Jumbos are allowing 42.7 points per game for the best mark among NCAA Division III teams.
Tufts’ stifling defense was on display March 1-2, when they swept through the NCAA regionals at home. The Jumbos defeated St. Lawrence 57-32 in the opening round and then advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 53-35 win over Babson. They limited both teams to a combined .256 field goal percentage (20/78).
In 27 games this season, Tufts (25-2) has held opponents under 40 points 11 times. They set the tone in a season-opening 50-30 win at Skidmore on Nov. 16, which stands as the season low. They reiterated their commitment to defense with the March 2 effort against an excellent Babson team, limiting the Beavers to just nine field goals.
Berube has stressed defense throughout her tenure at Tufts. This year’s group is statistically the best that she has coached. Both at practice and in games, they work hard at communicating first and foremost, pressuring the ball, denying one pass away, keeping the ball handler out of the paint, contesting every shot, playing solid help defense and allowing one shot a possession by boxing out and pursuing the ball.
“It’s who we are,” Berube says. “It’s our mantra. They love to play defense, I think. They really like to get after that. It’s kind of easy to coach that. We’ll be working on it again this week. We can always get better.”
Jumbo players have earned six straight New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) Defensive Player of the Year honors. Senior co-captain Bre Dufault, A13, this year’s recipient, joins a lineage of Jumbos who have won the award, including Tiffany Kornegay, A12 (2012), Vanessa Miller, A10 (2010-11), Kim Moynihan, A09 (2009), and Khalilah Ummah, A08 (2008).
“It’s something that I look for in prospective student athletes,” Berube says. “They need to commit themselves on the defensive end. I still think there’s a big learning curve from high school to college. Not every high school and AAU coach teaches man-to-man principles the way I do. Our returning players do a great job of instilling the defense we play during the preseason, which prepares them for November.”
The team saw what can happen when they don’t play a high level of defense during the NESCAC tournament. The Jumbos, who were the conference’s number-one seed and were poised to host the semifinals and finals at Cousens Gymnasium, were upset by eighth-seed Bowdoin 60-54 in the quarterfinals. It was just the second time that they allowed 60 or more points all season.
Termed a “blessing in disguise” by co-captain Kate Barnosky, G15, at the press conference following the NCAA second-round win over Babson, the loss refocused the Jumbos, and the results were better than ever in the NCAA regionals.
“It just felt like a complete 180 from when we played Bowdoin,” Dufault says. “We played with so much energy and so much passion. People pursued balls coming off the glass and coming off the rim. The help defense rotation was there. The ball pressure when they swung the ball around was there. We got the stops that we needed.”
Not to be overlooked, the Jumbos also take care of the ball on offense better than any other team in the country. Their average of just 12 turnovers per game is number one in the NCAA Division III statistics. They also score a solid 60.3 points per game offensively, ranking fifth in the conference. However, the Jumbo Women’s Basketball brand is defense.
“I think great defense can lead to easier offense,” Berube says. “It’s also something we can hang our hat on if our shots aren’t falling. A team can always play tough defense if you’re working together and working extremely hard on every possession.”
Tufts Sports Information Director Paul Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.